Football: Northwestern’s offense struggles in 24-15 loss against No. 8 Wisconsin


Noah Frick-Alofs/Daily Senior Staffer

Hunter Johnson gets sacked. The sophomore quarterback finished with 59 yards on Saturday.

Andrew Golden, Sports Editor

MADISON, Wis. — In the first half of Saturday’s matchup between Northwestern and Wisconsin, the two teams were trying to pay homage to those who came before them: donning throwback uniforms and playing subpar offense.

In October of 1891, the Wildcats and Badgers couldn’t score, finishing in 0-0 tie. Almost 130 years later, the two teams were once again locked in a tight defensive battle, combining to score 10 points in the first half.

But in the second half, No. 8 Wisconsin’s (4-0, 2-0 Big Ten) defense ultimately stole the show in the Cats’ 24-15 loss.

“Outside of the self-inflicted wounds, I think we’re really close,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “No team is good enough to give up 14 points to an opponent and expect to win a lot of games consistently. That cannot happen. Period. End of discussion.”

Wisconsin came out of the gates firing, taking the opening kickoff to its own 46 yard-line. The Badgers, with a balance of runs and passes, methodically moved their way down the field and capped the drive off with a 13-yard run by Jonathan Taylor.

On the other side of the ball, NU (1-3, 0-2) put together back-to-back three and outs, but caught a break when Wisconsin committed a personal foul penalty on the punt, giving the Cats a glimmer of hope. On the next three plays, NU marched from its own 19 to the Badgers 13-yard line, where the drive stalled and were forced to settle for a field goal from junior kicker Charlie Kuhbander.

But just like most of their first half drives, NU’s offense couldn’t capitalize on the play of its stellar defense. The Cats had six first half drives, but only two lasted over a minute and, aside from their lone 83-yard scoring drive of the half, had just 49 yards of offense.

Both team’s offensive struggles carried into the second half, but the Badgers defense continued their early-season dominance with another strong showing. With 2:34 remaining in the third quarter, Wisconsin safety Eric Burrell strip sacked sophomore quarterback Hunter Johnson and the ball rolled into the endzone, where the Badgers recovered it for a touchdown.

Johnson got hit again early in the fourth quarter and while he tried to return, he was eventually pulled from the game. Junior quarterback Aidan Smith replaced Johnson and, a few plays later, threw a pick six to put the Badgers up by 21.

A Wisconsin muffed punt led to a Drake Anderson touchdown, but a missed two-point conversion made the game 24-9 with 8:45 remaining. The Cats recovered an onside kick right after and, despite not scoring on that drive, scored a touchdown on the next possession, went for two once again and came up short.

Instead of a potential one score game, NU ended up needing two possessions to complete the comeback — but there simply wasn’t enough time.

“When you’re down 15, you go for two because those are the analytics we pulled to shorten the game,” Fitzgerald said. “You can’t ever know what’s going to happen next so you have to assume we gotta score as many points as we can right here, right now.”

The Cats are 1-3 for the second straight season after losing to a top Big Ten opponent. But junior safety Travis Whillock said the team is focused on watching film and getting better for next week.

“It goes back to getting back to the drawing board and taking it one day at a time,” junior safety Travis Whillock said. “This year isn’t last year, so we’re not worried about last year. We’re worried about this team and a legacy that we want for us.”

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